My first few months at Pitzer College were a curious time for me. I had no idea what college was supposed to be like, who I was supposed to be friends with, or even where to sit at the dining hall. I was lost, more than I felt I should be. I felt very, very small at a school that was one-fourth of the size of my high school. And even worse, on the days I didn’t feel incredibly invisible, I felt like there was no way I would ever fit in. Something about my tangled curls and olive skin just simply didn’t belong anywhere at Pitzer.
Two and a half years later, I still sometimes feel small. Yet more often I feel I’m starting to find my niche. I grew up in spaces where most people looked like each other but no one looked like me. Pitzer was another one of those spaces, but I arrived there at a time when I was becoming hyperaware of my differences.
Very recently, the Middle Eastern Student Association (MESA) was created at Pitzer. It quickly became the first space where I could look around, listen, see, and hear experiences that have reflected my own. MESA, in short, has become a slice of home for me, in both this moment of political uncertainty and this lifetime of figuring out how I’m supposed to fit in.
MESA is one of eight identity groups at Pitzer. Unsurprisingly, each of these groups is filled with success stories like mine. These groups act as safe havens in a community that generally doesn’t look like their members, and one in which members face increased pressure to succeed. Members of identity groups have diverse experiences, both within and outside their groups, but they share their identities with at least one room full of people at least once a week. Now, of all times, this is something to celebrate.
My experience, and those of so many others here at the colleges and elsewhere, has been backed up with research. Having a shared space where it is safe to discuss the hardest parts of your identity has proven to be highly effective in fostering an environment that is productive and enriching for all members of the community. In fact, when diversity is discussed and celebrated in these ways, it is easier to mitigate bigoted behavior. Thus, the existence of affinity groups improves every aspect of the community.
So, why do these groups have to fight so hard to find funding to help marginalized students on these campuses survive? The Pitzer College Student Senate currently requires that all organizations request funding on a yearly basis. In the process, you must justify why your group needs the funding. In practice, this means having to justify why your group exists.
This process is taxing. On the one hand, students who are part of these groups have less time than other students because they have the additional obligations of work-study and leadership roles in other identity-centered groups. There aren’t always enough hours to work out budgeting for an entire year. There is also the problem of numbers. Some groups have relatively few members, making it even more difficult for club officers to divvy up responsibilities.
It is inappropriate to treat these organizations like any other club. They deal with different responsibilities than those a typical club does. While Pitzer can’t put a numerical value on the emotional labor and support these groups provide, they can find other ways of supporting them. This includes creating mechanisms for consistent, sustainable funding that alleviates some of the end-of-year stress.
This also means allowing them more autonomy over how those funds are allocated. For example, the Student Senate could allow these groups to set their own dollar amounts, instead of allowing senators—who may be ignorant of the needs of identity groups—to do so.
As I begin to understand where I may fit in, in the context of Pitzer, I realize that so much work must be done. It isn’t enough for spaces to simply exist, especially if their existence is constantly undermined. As Riki Robinson PZ ’18, who is involved in Pitzer-based identity groups APAC (Asian Pacific American Coalition) and MIX (Mixed Identity Exchange), wrote an email to TSL, “Identity groups exist for us to create community and support one another and this layer of bureaucracy ignores the needs of marginalized students.”
I’m proud to go to Pitzer, and I’m proud to be Egyptian-American. I cannot wait for the day when I can say that these identities no longer conflict.
Simone Bishara is a third-year at Pitzer studying Sociology. She hopes to one day pursue a career in juvenile justice.